Great Neck North alum aids change for Cambodian children

Justine Schoenbart

When Andrew Wolff bought a one-way ticket to Bangkok back in 2007, little did he know he’d completely change his life course — and that of hundreds of Cambodian children. 

The 1995 Great Neck North graduate and founder of Children’s Future International, a non-profit organization that serves impoverished children and families in Cambodia, made a decision to travel to the other side of the world to teach or volunteer after receiving his master’s in multicultural education.

Once he decided to cross the border from Thailand into Cambodia, Wolff began working with fellow traveler Jenny Ciucci at a local non-government organization in a rural community, teaching drawing and music in an effort to engage children that were not in school, usually due to poverty. 

The NGO, he said, worked with HIV- and AIDS-infected patients who were ostracized by their communities, and provided them and their children with a place to stay and very basic care. 

“I got to know their community, their language, and I sort of realized that I could do a lot more,” Wolff said.

Wolff said he and Ciucci never intended to start their own organization, but after recognizing the magnitude of the children’s unmet needs, the two realized that they needed to create a holistic model that would serve the children’s basic needs, such as health care and nourishment. 

“Only once that is in place can children participate in school and transform their position in poverty and develop skills that will help them hopefully break the cycle,” Wolff said. 

In 2010, Wolff and Ciucci opened up the Children’s Future Learning Center, which Wolff described as “a safe place that the children know they can come to and be kids,” with the center’s gardens, soccer fields, and playgrounds. 

Wolff said the center has about five classrooms, an infirmary, library, and computer rooms to provide supplemental educational opportunities for children. 

“Teachers in public schools practice corporal punishment toward those of the lowest level of socioeconomic status. Many children don’t go to public school — it’s a corrupt country — they charge students to come to school. So, the children end up having lesser values as individuals without the opportunity to be in school, ” Wolff said. 

He said the program at the center allows for an additional educational experience by working with children prior to entering public school.

“We catch them up on their basic math, and we’ll offer them uniforms, bicycles to get to school, and even register them for public school,” he said. 

Once the children enter public school, Wolff said, a staff member follows up with them to make sure they’re doing well in a new learning environment. He said he also has a social work staff that is trained to determine if children or families need different types of support, such as stipends, a trip to the doctor, or repairs to homes following storms. 

“They’re very engaged at a level that seems necessary to keep children in the community,” Wolff said. 

He explained that without this constant engagement with families that addresses ways to keep their kids in schools, many families will end up migrating into Thailand in search of work. 

The organization has two bases — in Denver and New York. 

Three months ago, the organization joined a collaborative and shared work space that focuses on international development organization. 

The space, known as the Posner Center for International Development, is comprised of more than 65 organizations. 

“It really allowed us to broaden our support networks,” Wolff said.

Wolff, who previously served as the organization’s executive director, said he recently decided to step back from his position and hand it over to a non-profit professional, Melissa Thessen, who previously served on the board for the organization. 

“I’m a teacher at heart, and I sort of considered myself a teacher in withdrawal,” he said. “I’m able to step back and help in ways I’m most passionate about again.” 

As for future plans, Wolff said he’s not exactly sure, but is looking into different ways to engage youth. 

“It’s been important to decompress and process all that’s happened over the past several years,” Wolff said. “I will definitely stay actively engaged, but I do want to start working more directly with kids and youth.” 

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Justine Schoenbart

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